The city of Glasgow has long been notorious for the astonishing gap in life expectancy between rich and poor. Men who can expect to die at the age of just 54 live within a few miles of those who will survive well into their 80s.
Now researchers believe they have found a key reason for this disparity – the regular consumption of cheap, processed meat, particularly by the city’s poorest men.
High levels of phosphate in red meat was linked to premature ageing and kidney damage. And the study found that phosphate was much more easily absorbed by the body from meat containing additives.
Phosphate occurs naturally in many foodstuffs, such as meats, fish, eggs, dairy products and vegetables. But consuming too much of the substance wears down telomeres, vital structures on the tips of a person's chromosomes that help protect against a range of diseases -- from cardiovascular disease to Alzheimer's and cancer. Telomeres are so important that some scientists even believe they can be measured to give an accurate prediction of when someone will die.
Last year the World Health Organisation warned that processed meat caused cancer and red meat was also “probably” carcinogenic.
The Glasgow study analysed people from the most deprived and the least deprived areas covered by NHS Greater Glasgow.
The results, reporting in the journal Ageing, suggested that phosphate from red meat consumption increased a person's biological age in contrast to their actual age.
While some people in less deprived areas ate a similar amount of red meat, they also tended to eat more fruit and vegetables which helped offset the effect.
One of the researchers, Professor Paul Shiels, of Glasgow University's Institute of Cancer Sciences, said the main reason people were eating a bad diet was because they could not afford a better one.
“It’s poverty, it’s not a personal choice. Addressing poverty is the route to tackling this properly,” he said.
“You need to be able to afford to buy good-quality food. If you don’t and you can’t get quality red meat without additives, you’re going to have an issue.”
The researchers found the link between high phosphate levels and more frequent consumption of red meat only in men. The most deprived men had 7.4 per cent higher phosphate intake than the least deprived.
The type of meat appears particularly important. Someone eating red meat might absorb 60 per cent of its phosphates, but would take in 100 per cent from red meat with additives, Professor Shiels said.
Glasgow is known for consuming large amounts of ‘Scotland’s other national drink’, the soft drink Irn-Bru, which is another source of phosphates.
But Professor Shiels said it did not appear to be a factor because of the different ways the body absorbs different kinds of food and drink. “It contains a lot of phosphates but it’s not entering the fray here,” he said.
Professor Shiels suggested people should rethink the idea that red meat should be served at every meal.
“As someone who grew up in that kind of environment – my dad was a butcher – it’s scary to think about,” he said.
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